Dear Brothers and Sisters,
“What are you doing for Lent?” That’s the question Catholics often ask each other in the 40 days leading up to Easter. I would like to ask a different question – “Why do something for Lent?” So often from Ash Wednesday until Easter, we take on a regime of self- denial or active charity, but why?
We are about to celebrate the most important event in world history; the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What made his death so important was the freedom with which he went to this death. It was not forced on him, he chose it. This freedom made his death a paramount act of Love. Without selfishness and in total dedication to his father and to those around him, he gave up his life. He had a radical freedom to die. His resurrection comes in the wake of this freedom.
We don’t have this kind of freedom, we are not able to love as Jesus loved. Yet love is what defines and gives meaning to life. Lent is a time when we focus on our lack of freedom and our struggle to love, because the fruits of Our Lord’s resurrection are within our reach in proportion to our freedom to love. In answer to our question; we engage in a regime of self-denial and charity so as to grow in freedom and love.
The traditional components of Lenten practice are ‘prayer’, ‘fasting’ and ‘almsgiving’. Today these words seem distant and rather harsh. A more contemporary expression is ‘spirituality’, ‘self-denial’ and ‘love’. On account of failings in love, the Church proposes self-denial and spirituality as a means to freedom. What in practice should I do?
We begin by looking honestly at ourselves. Where in my life do I react rather than respond in love. Can I identify any places where circumstances choose for me, where I do not actively choose my response? Without realizing, there are often many places in my life where I lack freedom. Many Australians equate freedom with being able to do what we want to do. I strongly disagree with this. Always doing what we want is not freedom, it is slavery to desires and is the epitome of selfishness. We don’t choose, instead others tell us what we want and we follow them.
How can I establish or re-establish my freedom? When I was the novice master in the Discalced Carmelite Order, I asked the novices to each day deny themselves something which they wanted. Only in self-denial can we know that we are free. The ability to say ‘no’ to myself is a sign of my freedom. This does not mean that I must live my life saying ‘no’ to myself. Simply, I must be able to say ‘no’ to myself, otherwise I am not really free.
Self-denial is not expressed solely by denying myself something that I want or want to do. It can also be expressed by doing something loving, which I would prefer not to do. This is sometimes a harder form of self-denial.
The path to human freedom is easily spoken but most difficult to follow. Our weaknesses and failings are so close to us that they are a part of who we are. The achievement of authentic human freedom is like lifting ourselves up by our own bootstraps. In spite of this we should not despair because it is important that we never give up.
Jesus tells us that what is impossible for us is not impossible for God. We move now to the third component of Lent, spirituality or prayer. Self-denial is not sufficient. We cannot achieve freedom by ourselves. An acute experience of our own weakness and impossibility leaves us with two choices. We can give up, or turn to God.
Prayer and spirituality demand that we turn to God, to Jesus who like us struggled with his weaknesses. If we open ourselves to God in the silence of our souls, we will find that Jesus is on the other side of our difficulties. The end point of our enterprise is God, who alone can give us freedom.
This Lent, I pray that we will all take one further step on our path to freedom, the freedom of the children of God, and so experience more fully the grace of the resurrection.
So, what are you doing for Lent?
Dear Brothers and Sisters,